The Filidh: The Senchaidh Sírchuimneach* of Medieval Ireland


In the politically fragmented and hierarchal society of Medieval Ireland, a country lauded as “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, few figures made an imprint on Irish society such as the one left by the intellectual powerhouses known as the filidh[1] (poets).

The pre-Christian origins and activities of the filidh may be a bit nebulous due to the distinct lack of written records from the time, but the evidence available points to the fact that they were likely an offshoot, or at the very least a spiritual successor, to the Druids and as such, inheritors of their knowledge[2]. It also suggests that they dealt in prophecy and had a function as a seer[3], but truth be told, little is known of them before the 7th century[4]. A clear connection between the Filidh and magic can be seen with the esoteric nature of the skills required by a master poet[5]:

  • Imabas Forosna(i): ‘supernatural knowledge that illuminates’. The mantic knowledge accessed by poets. Popularised in the stories of Finn Mac Cumhaill who gained this power from eating the ‘Salmon of knowledge’ (who itself had eaten the nuts of knowledge) and could access this esoteric knowledge by sucking his thumb.
  • Teinm Laedo: ‘Chewing the Flesh’, a form of divination
  • Dichetal do Chennaib: ‘Chanting the Heads’(?), a particular way of chanting.

Prophecy played a part in the wide-ranging skill set of these medieval polymaths, with this being evidenced in the stories and sagas, for instance in the story known as ‘The Colloguy of the Two sages’[6]

Prionsios Mac Cana[7] describes the Filidh as “a professional fraternity with a strong stake in society”. This statement is reflected by not only their legal status in society, but in the fact that they would inherit land as part of their occupation. Their status and honour price[8] was second only to the king himself and the Filidh were the only lay people to be considered of full Nemed (privileged/sacred) status[9]. In fact, Mac Manus[10] suggests that they were even more sacred than the king, considering that the historical record shows the killing of many kings, but hardly any Filidh. The hereditary position came with many benefits including a parcel of land, free of taxes, and it was within their power to request that this land was located near the stronghold of the chief[11]. Other benefits included getting the best cut of meat at a feast and sitting next to the king[12], as well as having the king’s confidence or acting as an advisor[13].

Their primary functions seem to have been related to the composition of panegyric poetry and Satire[14]. They would praise the bravery of chiefs or curse their enemies[15]using the magical power of satire or a curse to inflict harm. They would extol the victories and notable deeds of their patrons and record them in verse[16]. These records were invaluable for the descendants of the chiefs as they were handy propaganda tools to legitimize their rule, to show where their ancestors came from and how they were connected to the world or kingdom they ruled[17]. These records and stories, however, were not enough to give them this power or right to rule. The Filidh held the power in this regard. They acted as “provers of pedigree”[18] and they could literally legitimise the ownership of land, the ruler’s connection to the tuatha (kingdom) and his suzerainty over them. The Brehon Laws mention “ten immovable rocks which hold fast every ownership of estates” including the fact that land and title are confirmed “by the words of poets” and that legitimate inheritance is “chanted by poets”[19]. Given this, it is no surprise that kings bent over backwards to accommodate them throughout the centuries, but more on that later!

Praise poetry, satire and the legitimisation of land ownership were only a few of the arrows in the quiver of the multi-talented Filidh. They had to be a master of Coimhgne, which involved historical knowledge, advanced memory skills and the construction of Geneology[20].Even though they were typically employed by a single ruling family, they were one of the few people in society that had freedom of movement[21] which allowed them to travel freely between kingdoms. As a result of this, a working knowledge of the genealogies of all the most powerful families was needed. The poets also had to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Brehon Laws, the native, compensation-based justice system, which they would render down into rosc poetry (likely for mnemonic reasons to aid memory)[22]. Chiefs would often call on the Filidh to aid in making true judgements[23], as making a false judgment could be detrimental to the entire kingdom (in the form of crop failures and birth defects), but couldalso show the king as not being fit for rule.

As entertainers and repositories of Senchas (traditional lore), the poet also had to know stories. The number of these Príomhscéala (Primary stories) that they needed in their repertoire depended on what grade they were[24]. The highest grade, the Ollamh needed to know 350, whereas the lowest grade, the Focloc, needed to know only 30[25]. The importance of this aspect of their craft can be seen in the adage “Níba Filí gan Scéla” (He is not a poet who does not have stories). Consequently, the level of training was also reflected in the number of poetic meters that a poet had to know and the final degree of training required them to be able to compose a poem on any topic extemporaneously[26]. In terms of performing in front of chiefs and nobles, if a Filidh could not make it to perform, they might send a lesser poet, or Reccaire (Reciter) to present alongside a harpist[27].

As Christianity gained a foothold, the oral tradition of the Filidh had to contend with the new technology of writing and manuscripts, which flourished between the 6th-12th centuries in the monastic scriptoria. Ó Corráin[28] argues that by the 6th Century, the line between the secular Filidh and the monastic literati was either seriously blurred or entirely non-existent. But, just because these traditions overlapped and interacted, doesn’t mean they were the same thing. There is evidence to suggest that the Filidh refused to take on the new monastic meters, naming them Nua Crutha (new forms), at least until the 9th century when they, at last, took them up[29]. They also resisted letting go of the oral tradition in favour of literacy, and as a result, the monastic scriptoria were solely responsible for recording the entire corpus of tales before the second half of the 12th Century[30][31]. The monastic scholars likely had visits by the Filidh who recited the tales, poems and genealogies to the monks who ultimately wrote them down, preserving the native tradition for future generations. The overlap mentioned above is further evidenced by the fact that a number of clerics were also Filidh in their own right[32]. Early sources and annals do draw a clear distinction between the monastic scholar and the Filidh, but the Annals of Ulster, for instance, mention a cleric by the name of Mael Muire of Othain who is described as being Ríg-fhilli Éireann (Chief poet of Ireland)[33], showing that being a monastic figure was no impediment to become a very prominent poet or vice versa.

As mentioned above, the filidh were of extremely high status in Irish society, and as a result, could become very wealthy from their patrons. They could be paid in rings, jewellery, cattle, silver and they also had a right to claim the wedding raiment of any woman married within the kingdom. The highest grade could have a retinue of up to 24[34], which in and of itself would be a great financial burden to anyone having to host them, but the Filidh knowing that no chief would refuse them (for fear of satire[35] and loss of status due to lack of hospitality), would often turn up with three times the number of retinue they should have[36]. The increasing audacity and ludicrous demands of the Filidh eventually reached a boiling point at the Mór-dál at Druim Cett in 575 AD when King Aodh wanted to disband the institution of the poets. Were it not for the intercession of the saint Colm Cille, it is very likely that the Filidh would have been exiled[37] en masse. The Filidh were found guilty of Avarice, idleness and insolence and the Ríg-Fili Éreann, Dalán Forgaill was tasked with reforming the institution and with appointing a chief poet in each province who had to set up a bardic school[38]. These renowned bardic schools continued alongside the monasteries and allowed the Filidh to hold on to prominence within Irish society throughout the middle ages, almost up until the fall of the Gaelic order in the 17th century.


[1] Alternatively named as éces, éigeas, fear dána, dámh, sgoil in some sources.

[2] Brezina, C. (2007), ‘Celtic Mythology’, New York:Rosen Central. Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From History to Written Word: The History of Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101, pp.327

[3] Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. The link with them being seers can also be seen linguistically with their name.

[4] Murphy, G. (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’ An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, Dublin: Messenger Publications

[5] Mulligan, A.C (2009), ‘The Satire of the Poet is a Pregnancy: Pregnant Poets, Body Metaphors and Cultural Production in Medieval Ireland, Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.

[6] Jackson, K (1934), ‘Tradition in Early Irish Prophecy’, Man, Vol34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

[7] Mac Cana, P (2004). ‘Praise Poetry in Ireland Before the Normans’, Éiru, Vol 55

[8] The amount of cattle, silver or cumal (female slaves) that had to be paid if they were wronged or injured.

[9] Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp 43-44

[10] MacManus, S (1990), ‘The Story of the Irish Race’, Wings Books: New Jersey, pp176

[11] Breatneach, P.A (1983), ‘The Chief’s Poet’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.83C, pp. 61-65

[12] Clark, P (2010), ‘The O’Cleary’s Hereditary Historians and Poets’, History Ireland, Vol.18, No.3, pp. 20

[13] Breatneach (1983)

[14] Breatneach, L (2006). ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, pp.67

[15] Clark (2010), pp.20

[16] D’Alton, E.A (1912). ‘History of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to Present Day’, Gresham Publishing Company Ltd: London.

[17] Brady, L. (2021), ‘Origin Myths in Early Insular Pseudo-histories: Medieval or Modern’, personal notes from online conference “Pseudo-history Among the Celtic speaking Peoples: Medieval Propaganda”, 12th June 2021

[18] Mac Cana (2004)

[19] Breatneach (2006)

[20] Clark (2010), pp

[21] Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp.46. Typically only people of the Áes Dána or ‘People of Skill’, such as poets, Wrights, and other craftsmen could travel from kingdom to kingdom.

[22] D’Alton (1912), pp.31

[23] The concept of making a true judgment could make or break a king in medieval Ireland. A false judgement could result in a king losing his status. It would also be reflected in his kingdom with storms, crop failure, murrain etc

[24] There were seven main grades of Filidh. In descending order. These were Ollamh, Anrúth, Clí, Cano, Dos, Mac Fuirmid, Focloc. (Breatneach, 1983:37)

[25] Kelly (2016), pp.46

[26] MacManus (1990), pp.179

[27] MacCana (2004), pp.23

[28]  Ibid, pp 12

[29] Murphy, G (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, pp87

[30] Breatneach (2006), pp.79

[31] After the second half of the 12th century the emergence of learned families, as well as church reform changed this dynamic

[32] Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd

[33] Mac Cana,p (1974), ‘The Rise of the Later Schools of Filidheacht’, Éiru, Vol.25, Royal Irish Academy, pp.126

[34] Kelly (2016), pp46

[35] Satire or Áer was believed to not only be able to blight crops, but could physically injure  someone by bringing out welts on their face.

[36] Mac Manus (1990), pp.179

[37] Two times leading up to the convention of Druim Cett this issue had been raised to exile them. 50 years after it, Ulster kings had to interject and save the poets  (Ibid:182)

[38] Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From Oral History to Written Word: The History of Ancient Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101. pp327-8

* ‘Long Memoried Custodian of Tradition’, Breathnach, L. (2006), ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brady, L. (2021), ‘Origin Myths in Early Insular Pseudo-histories: Medieval or Modern’, personal notes from online conference “Pseudo-history Among the Celtic speaking Peoples: Medieval Propaganda”, 12th June 2021
Breathnach, L. (2006), ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Breatneach, P.A (1983), ‘The Chief’s Poet’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.83C, pp. 61-65
Brezina, C. (2007), ‘Celtic Mythology’, New York:Rosen Central
Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.
Clark, P (2010), ‘The O’Cleary’s Hereditary Historians and Poets’, History Ireland, Vol.18, No.3, pp. 20
D’Alton, E.A (1912). ‘History of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to Present Day’, Gresham Publishing Company Ltd: London.
Jackson, K (1934), ‘Tradition in Early Irish Prophecy’, Man, Vol34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp 43-44
Mac Cana,p (1974), ‘The Rise of the Later Schools of Filidheacht’, Éiru, Vol.25, Royal Irish Academy, pp.126
MacManus, S (1990), ‘The Story of the Irish Race’, Wings Books: New Jersey, pp176
Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Mulligan, A.C (2009), ‘The Satire of the Poet is a Pregnancy: Pregnant Poets, Body Metaphors and Cultural Production in Medieval Ireland, Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.
Murphy, G. (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’ An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, Dublin: Messenger Publications
Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From History to Written Word: The History of Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101, pp.327

Cursing in Irish Folk Tradition





In a past article, I looked at some methods of folk healing in the Irish tradition. In this article, I would like to look at different types of curses (mallacht). In a few online discussions lately, I have noticed a few people who were shocked or incredulous that there was a tradition of cursing in Ireland and more so that people who had the power to heal, could also curse. In fact, it was widely believed that the two things were intrinsically connected and two sides of the same coin.

Evidence of Irish curses can be found in several sources including dictionaries, newspapers, visitor writings, diaries, religious tracts, law Tracts, Epic literature, hagiography, and the National Folklore Collection (Duchas.ie). The antiquarian William Carlton, when speaking about curses, says that there is a “certain style and ritual” needed to “ give them energy”. People would make a public display of casting these curses (such as a busy marketplace, for example) and they often “beat the floor and looked to the skies, put their hands together and besought god to blight their opponents”. The inclusion of god here is not unusual as cursing is often a “blend of lyrical and ritualistic spell casting” mixed with prayers to god, Mary or the saints. Some curses were cast from a height or a seashore and this is especially evident in the case of ship sinking witches (covered more in-depth here).
 
We look at a few different types below including the curses of Blacksmiths and Millers, beggars’ curses, widows’ curses, piseog’s, the Evil Eye, cursing stones, the curses of priests and saints and curses aimed towards landlords.


The curses of Blacksmiths and Millers

The connection of blacksmiths with the supernatural and with the use of magic is certainly not unique to Ireland. Their ability to turn raw materials into essential tools and weaponry afforded them special status within the community, and also created an air of mystery around them. The fact they worked with Iron, a universal deterrent of evil, bolstered this belief and imbued them with the ability to see or defeat evil. I covered this more in-depth in this article here. In keeping with the theme of the current article, their connection to cursing revolves around one of the main tools of their trade, the anvil. A method of cursing that was feared by the church when they composed the 8th-century lorica hymn protecting against the “spells of women, and smiths, and druids”. The words of this spell enacted by the blacksmiths were often kept purposefully hidden and obscure, but we do know that to cast it they had to turn the anvil tuathal (anti-clockwise) while uttering the proscribed incantation. Like many curses in Irish tradition, you ran the risk of having it rebound on you if it wasn’t warranted, but some sources seem to allude to there being a price to pay no matter what.

A folklore collector for the Irish Folklore Commission asked six blacksmiths if they had ever heard of this curse and all claimed to have heard about it but had “put the cross of Christ between them and all such things”. Some even claimed to have seen it being carried out when they were younger. One example from the National Folklore Collection states that “If you want something to befall your neighbor, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse” (NFC, IML.80:283). Another gives an example of how an eviction was thwarted by using this curse. In this instance, however, the anvil is struck rather than rotated: “A bailiff trying to evict people on Easter Sunday. It recounts how a number of men went to the forge and knelt around the anvil to pray. Instead of uttering a curse they would periodically get up and strike the anvil. This ultimately prevented the landlord from evicting his tenants” (NFC, IML.80:283). We will see other examples of eviction-related curses later in this article.
Sources also tell us that the miller had a similar ability, but in place of the anvil, his millstone was used. NFSC, Vol 0119:507, tells us “the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the millstone on him”.

Distance away from the victim did not matter. The curse worked as successfully if he were at the other side of the world as if he were just by their side. Landlords often feature as the targets in folktales and accounts:
“A miller farmer was about to be evicted. He and his friends gathered together in the mill and at the “witching hour” of midnight they “turned the millstone” on the landlord….. The shouts of the landlord in his death agony were heard in the district of the mill and he was found dead under his own bed next morning. His skin was as all over [as black as] the raven’s wing. It was really believed he was done to death by the turning of the millstone.
But here we see that there are repercussions:
“It was noted that some misfortune happened to everyone who had any part in the affair. One lost an eye, another a leg, another his reason. It seemed to bring a blight on the whole of them”. NFSC:Volume 0119, Page 506
 
 
Piseógs

SO, moving on to ‘piseogs’. This is one of those terms in Irish that can have multiple meanings. People will quite often refer to things as just being “piseogs”, meaning they are simply superstition.

The Ó Dónaill an Ua Mhaoileoin dictionary give the definitions as:
·         Geis (A supernatural taboo or injunction)
·         Ortha (A Charm)
·         Creideamh i ndraíocht agus is gcúrsaí osnádúrtha (Beilief in magic or in supernatural activity)

Ó Dónaill gives:
·         Charm/Spell
·         Superstitious practices
·         Superstition
·         Ag déanamh piseog (casting a Spell)

The ‘casting’ of Piseogs often takes the form of burying either eggs, meat, animal intestines or even straw dolls in the field of the intended victim. As these materials rot away, the luck of the person being targeted goes with them, or more ominously in the case of the ‘dolls’, the health of the person may deteriorate. This can be expedited by the caster by pouring water on the spot to make it rot faster.


Women who Curse

It would appear that the curses of women were especially feared throughout Irish history. The inclusion in the hymn mentioned above illustrates this but we also know that satire at the hands of women in medieval Ireland was also greatly feared. Women would let their hair down when casting curses and it appears that beggar women also left their hair down (women’s hair usually kept up or covered), to give the impression that they were “half-cocked” so to speak, and ready to curse should they be refused. Interestingly, Bean Chaointe (Keening Women) also left their hair down, mimicking their supernatural counterpart, the Bean Sídhe.

Female Satirists

Female satirists were especially feared in medieval Ireland. Áer (satire) was typically the domain of the Filidh (professional poet, second only to the king in status) and satire itself could be used as a weapon and as such was regulated by law. Illegal or unjustified use of satire was frowned upon and could lead to loss of your honour price. The tale Longes mac nUislenn (The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu) shows us that the freedom of movement afforded to filidh and other members of the Áes Dána (people of skill) was extended even more to accommodate female satirists: “No person was ever allowed into that house except her foster father, her foster mother and Leborcham; for the last mentioned one could not be prevented, for she was a female satirist”. Now, the fear behind this lay in the belief that satire, if properly used could physically harm the target, bringing out boils and blisters on the face. These blisters were especially problematic if you happened to be a king, for a physical blemish would disqualify you from kingship. Satire was also referred to as “un-poetry” and the law text Bretha Nemed Tóiseach tells us: “You are not to wound cheeks with the spears of un-poetry”. Mis-use however could bring it back on you, just like we have seen with the curse of the blacksmith above.

Similar to the idea that anyone with the ability to heal also can curse, it was believed anyone capable of giving praise could also use satire. Poetry was divided into three categories find, dubh, brecc:

•       White (Find) by which one praises
•       Black (Dubh) by which one satirises
•       Speckled (Brecc) by which one gives notice

The ‘Speckled’ one mentioned was also known as trefocal, a mix of satire and praise that served the purpose of giving a warning of impending satire, giving you plenty of time to rethink your actions. Several terms were used for satirists: Cáinte, Rindile and Birach Bríathar (one who is sharp with words).
 
Widows who curse

Widows’ curses were also greatly feared. These curses were especially common during the land war (circa 1879) but we have numerous examples of people enacting these curses even as late as the 1960s:
Mary MacCormack from Castlerea, for example, put a widow’s curse on the people who told the police that she was holding unlicensed public dances. Another example tells of a curse that rebounded on a widow and she “died tortured with liver disease.
 
 
The ‘Fire of Stones’ Curse

This interesting curse was used by people when they were being evicted from their houses. The purpose of this was to affect the house luck of whoever else was going to move into the house after them. Before leaving the newly evicted ex-tenants would block up the hearth with stones and say ““until these fires burn, will newcomers do any good” This method of cursing was still used in Ulster in the 1940s and 1950s.
 

Beggars who Curse

In the not-so-distant past, it was not uncommon to meet droves of itinerant mendicants traveling the length and breadth of Ireland. Beggars (Bacach, Lucht súil) would also employ curses if spurned or refused alms (this was the common impetus for the so-called ‘Ship sinking witches’ casting their curses).


Priests and Saints who Curse

This one shocks most people. I have encountered numerous people online who were completely incredulous that priests would be seen using curses, but there are almost 1500 years of examples of this stretching back to our earliest hagiographies. Some saints, in particular, were very fond of pronouncing maledictions on people and regularly cursed unfit kings (usually leading to extremely violent deaths brought about by a self-fulfilling prophecy). Examples of this can be especially seen in stories that feature a three-fold death (burning, drowning, stabbing) of the king as a result of the saint’s curse / prophecy. It could even be argued that given the proliferation of examples, that cursing almost served a sacerdotal function. We have the secular side, the Filidh with their satire and praise, and the ecclesiastical side, the priest/saint with the cursing and blessing, both essentially being part of the whole.

The Schools collection gives us an interesting story:
A priest named Spratt, put a curse on the Marquis of Waterford after the Marquis said “Sure ’tis out in the sea with the sprats (brisling, garvie, garvock) you ought to be”.  He replied with “You will get enough of the sprats yet”.
We are told how later the marquis “could not stay on dry land”, started living in a boat but the sprats used to jump into his boat and could not be kept out. The Marquis got so tired of life that he shot himself. NFSC,  Volume 0650:117

Eventually, the church took an official stance against priests using curses. In 1798 Bishops in Munster said they would sanction priests who used curses against their parishioners. Cursing by priests was officially banned by the church, especially politically and in 1883 the “Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act” outlawed “undue spiritual influence”.
1872 we have another example of a priest’s curse: “May the arm that is now sick, sling dead and powerless by her side before 12 months time”. This was pronounced from the pulpit while pointing at the the intended victim, a person the priest believed was responsible for painting tar on the pews. I don’t know about you, but I would love some more context to this story! I found the pointing element interesting as it brought to mind the druidic form of cursing known as corrguinecht (Crane or Heron killing). This curse was cast by standing on one leg, closing one eye, and pointing at the intended victim while incanting the spell.

Another priests curse was said to cause a woman’s children to be born blind and crippled.
 

Curses against landlords

I’m sure at this point you might have noticed a recurring theme that landlords were often at the receiving end of curses (which is very understandable given Irish history). Threatening rhyming curse letters were sent to Landlords and musical curses were also composed. An example from Limerick in 1886 certainly doesn’t hold back:
“May you wither up by the fire of hell soon and sudden, may the flesh rot off your bones, and fall away putrid before your eyes, and may the consolation of eternal flames come to be your consolation in your last illness, and that the hearthstone of hell be your pillow forever’.
As extreme as the above example may seem, it wasn’t unique. Curses often asked for all sorts of terrible things to happen to the intended victim such as broken bones, rotting flesh, heads smashed, stomachs exploded, Limbs withered, Blinding and so forth.
 

Cursing Stones

Here again, we have an example of something that could curse or cure. This was done similar to the examples we have seen above with the anvil and millstone. Turning them “tuathal” or anti-clockwise while chanting an incantation would send out a curse. These are often found at ecclesiastical sites, often known as ‘ballaun stones’. Sometimes they have ‘homing stones’ that return to the site should anybody take them. As with many of the examples we have looked at above, the curse had to be warranted or would be sent back at you. Interestingly, despite the cursing stones most likely having an ecclesiastical origin or usage, many were destroyed in the 19th century by the clergy due to their connection to cursing. Stones that “had long being used to lay powerful maledictions” were sought out and systematically destroyed or buried. Fortuitously, they didn’t get them all and we have a number of examples dotted around the country.
 
NFSC: Vol.0095:147

Emloc is in the parish of Louisburg on the Sea. In olden times there were two stones or rather flags here; one standing, on the seashore, and the other longer and thinner lying by the first.
If your neighbors wanted fine weather very badly, and you wanted to send him bad weather because of a grudge you had against him you had only to repair to Emloc turn the sand with the long flat slab repeating the while the proper prayers in the proper way, and the next day the rain and the bad weather would pour down on your friend the enemy, and you had him settled.
Another tale about the Emloc stones tells of someone trying it out when there was no chance of rain forecast. Two days of torrential rain followed as soon as he had carried out the ritual. Upon visiting a local bar, a seanchaí told him that a priest had long ago dumped the stones in the sea. He replied that they must have washed back in (homing stones) and the the old people in the area believed there were  “bad spirits in them”.
 

The Evil Eye:

The Evil Eye was essentially a curse or malediction that could be placed on a person or animal by a person possessing the power to do so. This was done when the said person “glared” or stared intently at the intended victim. This is often referred to as being ‘overlooked’. The curse could be intentional or unintentional on the part of the caster. Children who weren’t blessed were in danger of being “overlooked” so it was considered suspicious to not utter “God bless the child” when seeing one. Overly admired children could also fall prey to the Evil Eye (Droch shiúl). Another form of protection falls under the category of really weird stuff you really shouldn’t do, and was carried out by spitting on the child. Countercharms were often used as a remedy:

·         Hum the alphabet
·         Hum the letters of the name of the victim
·         Write out the letters of the alphabet, sprinkle with holy water burn (with addition of cross x3)
·         Steal a piece of their cloak, burn it and inhale the smoke.
·         Red string tied to tales of animals (especially around Mayday)
 
The person who cast it could also reverse it.

An example from Duchas tells us: “ About forty years ago some people were admiring a heifer calf in a farmyard among whom was a woman reputed to have the “evil eye”. When the people had gone the calf fell to the ground in a fit, whereupon someone said that the woman with the “evil eye” should be asked to return [and} say “God bless her” over the calf. This was done immediately the calf stood up was as well as ever” (NFSC.Vol.0952:203).
 
You could be born with the power or gain it through being weaned from breast milk and put back on it. People with unusually coloured eyes, bushy eyebrows or certain hair colours may be more prone to possessing this power “Let not the eye of a red-haired woman rest on you.”  One account says that after a few fatal incidents that the person with “the evil eye” was forced to wear an eyepatch while walking around, however, he was said to also put his power to good use by later saving a pet pigeon when he stunned it out of a tree.

Mythical examples of this power include Balor, Togail Bruidne Dá Derga and Bruiden da Choca are some examples. We see numerous examples through the older sources where there is a connection between eyes and otherworldly or preternatural harm. Abnormal, differently colored eyes, and bushy eyebrows were associated with the evil eye. Babies and young cattle were especially vulnerable and even saints were known to have the evil eye.
I have an article covering more of  this ‘Curse’ here
 


Some Random Curses

With all this talk of curses, I should include some. Here are a couple that fall outside the categories above:

“Biadh a t-aifrionn gan solas duit,a bhean shalach” –  “May mass never comfort you, dirty woman”

‘Marbhadh Fáisg Ort’ – “The squeezeband of death on you!” (This is based on an item used to keep the mouths of corpses shut that was tied around jaw and head. This could be made from any material. So, basically wishing death on the person.
 

Medieval Curses

‘You son of a stammering, surly, puffed-up foreign woman‘ (mac ro boí oc gaillsig goit grúcbuirr)
‘You grandson of a ploughman [who is] filthy like a badger’ (uí airim brocṡalaig)
The rest can be seen here
 
Hope you enjoyed this sojourn into Irish cursing. Don’t forget to follow the facebook page and I will see you soon for the next article

Some others can be found here: https://www.sengoidelc.com/category/curses-insults/

Examples include:

Millfet lí th’aigthe! (I will destroy the beauty of your face. = I will kill you!)

Ní fes cía cú rot·chac for otrach! (No one knows what dog shit you out onto a dunghill!)

A chacc cuirre uidre ittige! (O shit of a flapping dun-colored crane!)

Bid móin ⁊ mothar a feranna-som co bráth. (Their lands will be boglands and thickets forever)

Ní raib úaid acht cairem ⁊ círmaire nó nech bed fíu iad. (“May none spring from him but shoemakers and combmakers, or people of that kind.”)

Úir aineóil tarat! (Foreign soil over you!)

Goirde shaogail duit abhus ⁊ ifrenn thall! (Short life to you on this side, and hell on the other!)

Sources

Duchas.ie (Schools collection), Main Manuscript Collection (NFC). Individual manuscripts mentioned in text.

The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature and Law,  Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly, Celtica 24

Irish Cursing and the Art of Magic, 1750-2018, Thomas Waters

In Defense of Saints Who Loved Malediction, Ksenia Kudenko, in “Charms, Charmers and Charming in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Modern

European and American Scholarship and the Study of Medieval Irish Magic, Jacqueline Borsje in “Charms, Charmers and Charming in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Modern

A Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly

Celtic Spells and Counterspells, Jacqueline Borsje

Praise and Early Irish Poet, Liam Breatneach, Éirú vol.56

How to make a Saint Brigid’s Cross:

Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw (but feel free to make them from paper or whatever is available to you. For examples of paper crosses see folklore.ie here). These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigid’s cross. They were typically nailed to the thatch of the roof, over doors and in animal byres to protect from fire, lightning and fairy influence. To read more about the traditions of Saint Brigid’s day traditions, including more about the cross please see my article here .

Anne O’ Dowd’s book Straw, Hay and Rushes also has an excellent section on the crosses, including photos and information on the museum examples and types.

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What you will need:

Fresh rushes (or straw)

Scissors

Elastic bands or string

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Trim the rushes to about 30 or 40 centimeters, depending on how big you want your cross. Pick the best rushes from the bunch.

Take a single rush for the center piece. Take a second rush and squeeze the middle and fold in half, like the photo below:

Now wrap this around the first rush like so:

Bend another rush and place it as follows (Making sure to always hold the center tight to stop it all unravelling):

Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:

Now, TURN THE CROSS ANTI-CLOCKWISE once. The rush you just placed that was facing to left should now be facing down. (If you think of a clock, it should go from 9 to 6). Now bend another rush and place it as follows:

Now every single time you add a rush, turn it anti-clockwise once and keep building up the pattern like below ( so add rush, turn, add rush, turn, add rush, turn until you are happy with the size of the cross):

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Before placing the last piece, loosen a piece like the photo below and thread the final piece through it, placing it the same way you did the previous steps. Then pull the piece tight. This will hold the hold the whole thing together for you to tie off the ends, and will keep the pattern woven tighter:

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It should now hold together for you to tie the ends off and trim:

Hopefully this was of help for you and you should now have your own Brigid’s cross to protect your home or animals. Don’t forget to follow on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore and feel free to leave pics of your completed crosses in the comments of the facebook post. Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!

And if perhaps you do admire,

That this great house did ne’er take fire,

When sparks ,as thicks as stars in the sky,

About the house did often fly,

And reach’d the sapless wither’d thatch,

Which dry spunge the fire would catch,

And where no chimney was erected,

Where sparks and flames might be directed

St Bridget’s cross hung over the door ,

Which did the house from fire secure

NFC Iml 1148:465 + Iml 482:172

The Seven Heavens: An Irish Eschatological Tradition

In a country with an epithet like “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, one would expect to find a very rich and plentiful resource of religious beliefs when looking at the vast collection of manuscripts handed down to us from our forebearers. This is certainly the case and among these beliefs the medieval Irish seemed to have a special fondness towards the eschatological tradition. Within this tradition we find the subject of this current essay, the so called ‘seven heavens’. John Carey classes the ‘seven heavens’ as being the “most striking element in insular eschatological tradition”, a claim that is certainly hard to refute considering the fact that accounts of it can be found in manuscripts dating well into the 19th century. This popularity is especially striking considering the fact that many of the beliefs found therein had long since gone out of fashion. The main focus of these texts is on seven zones or heavens through which souls have to pass. Several of these ‘zones’ contain punishments of a purificatory nature, ultimately culminating in judgement before the divine.

This tradition of course does not originate in Ireland, nor is it limited to such. Carey argues for a Gnostic background for the tradition and although there are ten zones/heavens in many instances in the Coptic sources, they do in fact share a common denominator, the fact that these zones share the hell like torments that have a purifying effect on the souls involved. In the Irish sources though it is not common to connect the seven heavens with the seven known planets known at the time unlike what we see in, for example, the Egyptian sources where they often equate the seven heavens with the planetary bodies or the primeval week. The resemblance between the Irish, old English and Latin material pertaining to the seven heavens does at the very least point to the possibility of them all stemming from a common source. This theory of a common lost apocryphon can be argued for due to the schema relating to the passage of souls through the heavens and the remarkable similarities between the Irish, Old English and Latin sources. Each of these portrays the heavens as concentric with a gate or door to each entrance. The entrances of the first two of the seven heavens are guarded by 2 virgins and an archangel. Souls must pass through the zones facing obstacles such as fiery walls and streams with levels of time taken to pass through the obstacles being dependent on if the soul was righteous or a sinner. As they reach the 7th heaven they are subject to judgement by god with the sinners being eaten by a succession of twelve dragons until they are deposited into the devil’s mouth. By the time the tradition had evolved to the point of the more modern versions, such as in In Tenga Bithnua modern recension (hereafter TBNM) this description has become more graphic in terms of the dragons eating the soul and it being passed through the anus into the mouth of the next dragon. Also similar to the Seacht Neamha (hereafter SN), we see the use of classical names for rivers (such as Asceron, Styx etc.). This so-called ‘lost apocryphon’ of the seven heavens was proposed by Stephenson to have been derived from a mixture of the Greek version of the Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul and another apocalypse that was translated into Latin before reaching Ireland. This was more or less backed up by Carey although he views Pistis Sophia as being a better candidate over the Apocalypse of Paul. Whichever apocalypse informed it, it is clearly evident that there was indeed Coptic influence and it may be safely assumed that there were some now lost editions circulating that ultimately informed our own native insular seven heavens tradition.

In an Irish context we have a number of texts relating to the seven heavens that survive. As mentioned above these cover a large time period from the 12th century up until the 19th century. The primary texts relating to this tradition are the account of the seven heavens contained within Fís Adomnáin, ‘An Seacht Neamha’ in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (hereafter LFF), and ‘In Tenga Bithnua’. The oldest account of the seven heavens that can be found in Ireland is contained within Fís Adomnáin (hereafter FA) and is found in Lebor na hUidre. This recension of FA has essentially the same framework as the Visio Santi Pauli but chooses to omit all the names of the doors and of the heavens. Also it would appear, according to Touati, that the FA seven heavens section could have been informed by the homily of the karlsruhe fragment which is Hiberno-Latin in origin and was very likely familiar to the author of FA.

Another Irish seven heavens text we are aware of is ‘In Tenga Bithnua’ (hereafter TBN). John Carey places the original composition of this to around the 9th century whereas Whitley Stokes had placed it to the 10th/11th century around the time of the crossover between old and middle Irish period. The popularity of this text can be seen from it being copied over many centuries, long after the belief systems contained within had become obsolete. There are numerous copies of this text extant in three recensions. The third recension, or modern recension (TBNM), can be found in 39 manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to the 15th century (this copy however does not have the seven heavens section ) and the latest of which are 18th and 19th cent. Of these later manuscripts twenty copies are from the 18th century and eighteen from the 19th century. The language in these recensions, in comparison to the others, has been modernised and due to this fact, can be dated to no earlier than the period in which they were written. Even though the language has been ‘updated’ as such, there are some similarities found there with phrases found in both SN and FA and while TBNM does not directly derive from them, it certainly shows influence from them. What is worth noting though is that in TBNM we see more attention paid to the names of the seven heavens unlike FA, with many of the names being similar to SN. Another development when looking at TBNM is that it is the only recension that features the ease of passage through the trials by the righteous and the prolonging of torments of the sinners that is in other seven heavens texts that is not evident in the first and second recensions of TBN.

So in conclusion we see that in the case of SN, TBN and FA that there are gates involving barring access to the heavens that would appear to be some sort of interface between the vertical and horizontal approach to the traditions. We also see virgins as guardians (only named in one instance) that have iron rods for scourging souls. And in some cases these heavens seem to be specifically concentric as opposed to ascent. In all cases these souls have to pass through various obstacles such as fiery rivers, walls etc, that increase in difficulty depending on the purity of the soul and the ultimate time needed to pass dependant on said purity. Each passes through these zones till they reach an antechamber of sorts in the sixth heaven and ultimately being judged by god himself in the seventh heaven. In all cases we also encounter twelve dragons who swallow the soul of those damned to hell, passing the soul from one to another till the damned soul is deposited into the jaws of the devil.

The remaining seven heavens text we find in Ireland is the An Seacht Neamha text found in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum . This is the only version of this text that we have available to us. Also in this manuscript we see a deliberate attempt to modernise the language possibly to make it more accessible to the readers of the 15th century. We see many parallels between SN and TBN in the fact that they both have very close descriptions of the heavens. Both describe seventy two rewards in the paradisal zones and seventy two punishments in the hell like zones but as well as its similarities it has its own unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere. These elements include the naming of the virgins found in the second heaven. This naming of the virgins can also be found in the Old English homily along with identical naming of doors which leads us to believe that both derive from the same source.

Bibliography
‘The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology’, Carey, J.,Nic Cárthaigh, E., and Ó Dochartaigh, C. (eds.), 2 vols (Aberystwth,2014), vol.1

Carey, J.,’The King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings’, (Dublin, 2000)

Carey, J.,’The Seven Heavens and the Twelve Dragons in insular apocalyptic’, in McNamara, M. (ed.), Apocalyptic and Eschatological Heritage: The Middle East and Celtic Realms, (Dublin,2003)

Herbert, M.,’Medieval Collections of Ecclesiastical and Devotional Materials: Leabhar Breac, Liber Flavus Fergusiorum and the Book of Fenagh’ in B. Cunningham and S. Fitzpatrick (eds.), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin,2009)

Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)

Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)
Stokes, W.,’The Evernew Tongue’, Eriú 2 (1905)

Slavery and Hostages in Early Medieval Ireland

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Slavery

Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave, you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver).  These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other Tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.

Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred).  Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.

Hostages

The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.

When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:

  • Suriety for legal cases
  • Submission to subordinate kings
  • To secure political agreement

The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement within the Tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).

Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this is likely due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.

The terms used when referring to hostages depend on the period we are looking at:

  • Gíall (continuous use)
  • Aitre (11th century onwards)
  • Brága (12th century onwards)